Protein. The latest of the ever-rotating macronutrient fads by fitness enthusiasts, booksellers and food manufacturers alike. In recent years, we’ve worked through the low-fat craze, the more recent low-carb fad and now we’re moving through the high protein trend.
Singling out this most recent food “bad guy” on the block and getting you to buy into their ideas might be good for business, but is it really good for you? How much protein do YOU really need? And do YOU really need to increase your protein intake or drastically change how you eat? Well, before you grab that trendy protein shake or stock up on flank steaks, let’s take a closer look.
What is protein, anyway?
For a lot of people, when they think protein they only think of cows, chickens and fish. But these aren’t the only source protein in the grocery store. Aside from the typical animal sources, there are tons of foods that contain protein that you may not even be aware of. These include nuts, seeds, dairy, legumes, even produce like broccoli and peas. All of these foods have amino acids in them and understanding how to include them in your diet can go a long way towards ensuring that you’re giving your body what it needs for optimal health and performance.
Protein = amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Your body uses these building blocks to carry out numerous bodily functions, including growing and repairing your muscles, cartilage, hair, skin and bones. In total, there are 21 amino acids, 9 of which are essential, meaning you can only get them by eating them.
All of the others your body can make as long as you eat a balanced, healthy diet.
A protein is considered “complete when it contains all nine essential amino acids. Animal proteins like chicken and eggs are considered complete; beans, nuts and seeds aren’t. If you’re looking to get your protein from plant sources, you’ll need to do a little research to make sure you’re combining them the right way in your diet so that you’re consistently getting all the essential aminos you need. Check out the cheat sheet below to get you going.
Complete Veggie Proteins
- Quinoa, 8 grams per cup cooked
- Buckwheat, 6 grams per cup, cooked
- Rice + Beans, 7 grams per cup
- Ezekiel Bread, 8 grams per 2 slice serving
- Hummus + Pita, 7 grams per 2 TBL hummus + 1 whole wheat pita
- Spirulina + Grains or Nuts, 4 grams per 1 TBL
- Peanut Butter Sandwich, 15 grams per 2 slice bread with 2 TBL peanut butter
Do you REALLY need more protein?
While there may be some debate about whether or not Americans eat too much protein, there’s no question that we eat more meat per capita than any one else in the world. On average it’s said 16% of our average daily calories come from protein,  with much of that being eaten at dinnertime rather than the preferred way of spacing it out throughout the day. To put that in percentage in perspective, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of high-quality protein per kilogram of body weight but that amount is said to only cover your basic needs and is only the amount to keep you from getting sick.
According to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults in the US are encouraged to eat 10% to 35% of their daily calories from protein rich foods. That works out to be about 46 grams of protein for sedentary women and 56 grams for sedentary men.
So, what should you do?
How much protein you actually need is not necessarily an easy question – that’s why the official recommendation is a range (10-35%) in relation to your total calories. Before you start loading up on more steaks or protein shakes, start by figuring out how much protein you’re already eating daily on average. After all, it doesn’t make sense to mindlessly increase or change how much you’re eating without knowing how much you’re eating. Online tools like MyFitnessPal are great for tracking and quickly calculating the breakdown for you so check it out.
Once you know how much you’re eating consider using the 0.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass calculation recommended by Dr. Joseph Mercola. This helps to ensure that you’re eating enough protein to support your lean body mass (muscles, bones, internal organs, etc) instead of including your body fat in the calculation.
So, for example, if your weight is 150 pounds and your body fat is 25 percent, you would first subtract 25 percent from 100 percent to get 75 percent. Next you’d multiply 75 percent by 150 to get your lean body mass in pounds. Then you’d multiply that number by .5 to get the amount of protein you need each day.
100% – 25% = 75%
.75 x 150 pounds = 112.5 pounds
112.5 pounds x .5 grams = 56.25 grams
Keep in mind that this calculation is a general recommendation. It’s a good place to start but you may need to consult with a qualified nutritionist or fitness professional for more insight on your personal protein needs.
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